index magazine

Lena Dunham's hilarious web series. Click here to watch seasons one and two!
Daniel Day-Lewis spoke with poet, Eileen Myles in this 2002 interview. Photography by Terry Richardson.

Read Bjork's2001 interview with Juergen Teller from the index archives.

Kathleen Hanna discusses writing and making music in this interview from 2000 with Laurie Weeks.

Isabella Rossellini spoke with Peter Halley in this 1999 interview.

Check out our interview with Crispin Glover by Richard Kern from 2000.
Alexander McQueen's 2003 interview with Bjork.

Howard Shore, 2001


Composer Howard Shore has scored more than fifty movies — from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome to Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. Up next, the most highly anticipated movie event in years: The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

CORY: You came to New York in 1975 to start Saturday Night Live with Lorne Michaels. How did you ever come up with it?
HOWARD: It goes back so many years. Lorne and I did a version of that show when we were kids at camp.

CORY: You’re kidding.
HOWARD: We were fourteen years old. This was 1960, so the boys and girls were separated during the week. But we had a coed “social” every weekend, and on Saturday nights a few of us would do a show. We called it The Fast Show, because we did it so quick. It was comedy routines and music. We’d do lip-synching, dancing, we’d read poems and act them out — things like that.

CORY: And you came up with most of the musical numbers?
HOWARD: Yeah, but it was basically a repertory group where everybody did a little of everything. It was improvisational. And of course, it was a way to meet girls.

CORY: Because you were up on stage.
HOWARD: Right. And Lorne and I continued to do shows together after that, in our teens. We did a lot of productions at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. At seventeen, I kind of walked in and said I was a songwriter and composer. They gave me a tiny little office with a piano. Suddenly I was writing music for radio dramas. Then we started doing television about a year later. Lorne was writing specials for the CBC, one-hour variety shows that were the precursor to Saturday Night Live. I would music-direct them.

CORY: This was in Toronto?
HOWARD: Yeah, but then we split up around 1965. I went to study composition in Boston at Berklee College of Music. Then I went on the road for four years with a rock group.

CORY: Wow, I had no idea.
HOWARD: Yeah, I played in a Canadian group called Lighthouse that had horn and string sections. This was the time of rock operas — you know, the Moody Blues era of mixing rock with symphony. I was learning to work with orchestras, and I was conducting. We did a thousand one-nighters all over the world, like two hundred and fifty a year. We traveled in Europe, Japan, England … We played all the Fillmore gigs. We opened for Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Hendrix at the Isle of Wight.

CORY: That’s another life, almost.
HOWARD: I know. It was ‘68 to ‘72 — a great period to be in rock and roll. It’s interesting for me to watch some of these new behind-the-scenes documentaries. I always feel like Zelig, because I was often in those rooms. It wasn’t until years later that I finally realized it. “Oh, right. I believe I was backstage when they were filming that. Oh, I remember Jim Morrison. That was that guy, Jim. Oh, Jim, of course!”

CORY: But you decided to leave that world behind?
HOWARD: Yeah, eventually I came back to Toronto and had my own band for a few years. Lorne had gone to L.A., where he was writing for Laugh-In and Flip Wilson, and working with Lily Tomlin. I remember going out to visit Lorne, and he took me to a meeting where we talked about doing a show. He said, “It’s going to be a kind of improvisation.”

CORY: He’d been dreaming about getting The Fast Show going again.
HOWARD: Yeah. It was 1975, and NBC said, “We won’t give you any money. We’ll give you an old rundown space that used to be a game show studio. And we’ll give you these offices that we can’t rent.” It was that kind of thing. “You’ll be on at 11:30 p.m. Nobody is going to watch your show, so whatever you do will be fine.” They used to put on reruns of Gunsmoke at that time — it was a dead period. So that was it. There was Lorne, a writer he’d met in L.A. named Tom Schiller, and myself.

CORY: So you went on live every Saturday night. You wrote all the music, and you came up with the famous theme song. Did you also write comedy bits?
HOWARD: I did, because it was repertory. I mean, the show was created by a group of people who sat down in a room every Monday in fear of doing a live show on Saturday night. We’d ask each other, “What can you do? Can you juggle? Can the host sing?” There was no real structure to it — that all came later. The musicians were quite integral to the show in the early years, because they had real talent and we could do musical pieces. “Okay. What would be funny? Let’s have Joe Cocker sing something with Raquel Welch.”

CORY: You once mentioned that you lived in a rough neighborhood during those years.
HOWARD: When I first came to New York, I stupidly thought that it would be smart to have an apartment close to the studio. It was a Canadian’s view, like, “It would be easier if I could walk to work.”

CORY: So you lived near Rockefeller Center?
HOWARD: I lived in Hell’s Kitchen! I sublet from an old woman whose husband had died. She was a missionary, and she went off to Africa for six months, but she didn’t really pack the place up. She left her husband’s photographs all over the place — stuffed in the drawers of the dresser, you know. They were really creepy — black and white, mostly crime scenes. Years later, I figured out, “Oh my god, that was Weegee.” And of course, in researching it, I found out Weegee had lived on 47th Street, and yes, that was his place.

CORY: How did you first start writing scores for David Cronenberg? Don’t tell me you two also met at summer camp.
HOWARD: Well, Cronenberg is a little older than I am, though I did meet him when I was about twelve. I was just starting to discover science fiction and horror movies, and I realized there was this guy in the neighborhood who actually made those types of movies. Cronenberg started doing 8-millimeter films when he was quite young. He was sixteen, he rode a motorcycle, and he just had a real mystique about him.

CORY: So you looked up to him.
HOWARD: Yeah, and it’s interesting, because the relationship is still exactly the same. He still seems older and brighter somehow, and whatever he’s doing is always way ahead. He’ll say something and years later I’ll think, “Oh, David said this would happen, and he was right.”

CORY: What made you move toward scoring films?
HOWARD: I had studied music for years, and I was really only using a very small percentage of my ability on television and radio shows. I had grand dreams of what could be done musically. I guess I was an artist who hadn’t really come out yet.

CORY: You were hearing symphonic music.
HOWARD: Completely. And film scoring seemed like a way to get to write experimental music. I was thinking, “Who will play my music? I have no money to hire anybody. No record company is going to do it. No organization is interested in me because I’m not coming from academia.” That’s why Cronenberg was so perfect to start with — he’d never worked with a composer, and I’d never worked with a director. We had no preconceptions. There was no studio. There was nobody telling us what we could or couldn’t do. It was completely experimental.

CORY: Did he give you much direction?
HOWARD: No. David’s work comes from a somewhat ’60s sensibility. “We’re a group, you’re a part of it, you do this.” And I must say, Saturday Night Live was like that too. In Canada you kind of do everything yourself. For three or four years after the show started, I helped book the bands and set them up. I helped mix them. I wrote music for my group, worked with the host and the cast, found needledrop music for sketches … I didn’t know that you could actually get help to do these things. The Cronenberg movies were similar in that they were very low-budget. The Brood, Scanners, and Videodrome were all made for about a million dollars, or less. I would create those scores with however much money I had.

CORY: They were all pretty avant-garde.
HOWARD: On Scanners, I used a lot of tape techniques. I was interested in Toru Takemitsu and John Cage. I discovered that stuff as a kid and listened to it all through my rock and roll period. I was cutting up tape and sticking it together and making sound design when I was ten years old. I still have that old tape recorder, actually. I was basically doing the same thing with Cronenberg — just with a little more money and bigger machines. I’d write orchestra music, combine it, overlay it, cut it up. And I wasn’t so much applying the score to the film. I would use the film as something going on in the background. I still do that in certain films. Like I could have done Crash when I was ten — I used the same techniques.

CORY: You used a lot of guitar in Crash.
HOWARD: Yeah, but you’re thinking of what the sound is. I don’t think of the sound. I just think of it compositionally, how the notes fit together. People think music is what you hear — which, of course, is the realization of what’s on the page. But music is actually a relationship of values on a page.

CORY: You regard music as visual?
HOWARD: Completely.

CORY: What’s your process like?
HOWARD: I write every single day — like some people do yoga. I think it was Brahms whose wife wouldn’t let him out of the room each day until he’d passed a certain number of pages under the door. I don’t shove pages under the door, but my day is not finished unless I put certain pages in the scanner and send them out. And then it all blows up from that. I orchestrate the score, then I have it performed and conducted. There’s a recording that captures it. It goes through different stages.

CORY: Who are your favorite film composers?
HOWARD: Well, I’ve mentioned Toru Takemitsu. I love how he used silence techniques. I also like the Italian composers, like Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota. The minimalism they used to capture the emotion of a film is often fantastic. Like, the Godfather was so beautifully scored by Rota. And Georges Delerue did beautiful stuff with Godard.

CORY: Can we talk a bit about how you go about scoring a particular film, like the Lord of the Rings trilogy?
HOWARD: The Lord of the Rings is a European literary classic that people study at universities. It’s a vast story with many cultures and worlds and languages. And I can’t write anything until I research it thoroughly. So on Lord of the Rings, I did four months of research, during which I read everything I could about it. Then I put it all away. “Okay, now I know what other people think Lord of the Rings is. Fine. Here is a big blank canvas. Now what am I going to do?” Once that process starts, it’s just a journey. Music is just one bar at a time. There are ten bars on a page, and then it’s another page. It’s a huge task, but you just go at it as efficiently as you can with each bar that you’re writing, because you know you’re creating a rather large work. The score for The Fellowship of the Ring is almost three hours long.

CORY: And that’s only the first part of the trilogy!
HOWARD: Yeah. And symphonic works are usually twenty to fifty minutes long. Once you go into an hour or two, you’re into opera length. So at a certain point I realized that I was writing an opera. Fine. So then I needed a text for an opera. Tolkien wrote a lot of poetry, which is in the books, and a lot of song lyrics. He would write, “And they sang this song,” and then he’d have two pages of lyrics. So there was my text. But in a movie, the characters can’t simply stop for two pages and sing a song. There isn’t enough time, and it’s such a dense work. There are twenty-two main characters in the first film. And there are many different worlds — Rivendell, Lothlorien, Moria — each with its own culture, people, and language. And all this has to be conveyed in a few hours of filmmaking.

CORY: Did you end up using Tolkien’s own lyrics in the score?
HOWARD: Well, they’re part of the music. For example, I used ancient Dwarvish in Moria, which is a dwarf world. Philippa Boyens, one of the screenwriters, wrote a text, which was translated into Dwarvish by a Tolkien scholar named David Salo. You know, Tolkien was a professor of languages at Oxford. He actually created an Elvish language, which you can learn to speak. It’s spoken in the film. Dwarvish is a less developed language — there were only thirty or forty words that were translatable. So David sent us his translation, and our linguist, Rasheen Roisin, did the pronunciation. Then I assembled a chorus to sing the Moria text.

CORY: It sounds like a massive undertaking. I had no idea …
HOWARD: Oh yeah. And in the movie, the dwarves are very stout and warlike. They have axes and big beards and things. The female dwarves are almost indistinguishable from the male dwarves. They live in a mine, below a mountain — all very interior. The director, Peter Jackson, wanted the sound to be rough and kind of masculine. So I contacted a Samoan choirmaster named Inglese Ete, and he put together a Maori-Samoan choir to sing the Dwarvish text. And they weren’t all singers — some of them were football players! [laughs] We recorded it with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. It was quite wonderful.

CORY: Lord of the Rings was filmed and edited entirely in New Zealand. Did you write the score in New York or down there?
HOWARD: I mainly wrote there. I went down in February and stayed for a few months to really absorb New Zealand. I don’t think this movie could have been made as successfully anywhere else. The Lord of the Rings has been called the most complex fantasy world ever created. It has tremendous heart. It fits the Kiwis.

CORY: How so?
HOWARD: They have the intellectual capacity to both absorb such a huge project and to slow it down. They have the pace and the stamina. It’s like climbing mountains. Do you know the story of the great mountain climber, Sir Edmund Hillary? He’s from Auckland, New Zealand. I met him on the set one day. He’s a friend of Peter’s.

CORY: He was the first man to climb Everest, right?
HOWARD: Yeah, back in 1953, which is around the same time that the first Rings book was published. Hillary is a national symbol in New Zealand — he’s on the five-dollar-bill. He was a beekeeper’s son, a strapping big guy who carried bee stuff around in the country. Before he did Everest, he climbed all the mountains around it in Tibet. He just sort of strode across, as if he were going out to get the paper or something. When he actually climbed Everest, nobody had ever walked up that ice face they now call the Hillary Step. But he just walked across a sheer ice incline, in the middle of the night, with a Sherpa guide behind him. When he got down he said, “I guess we knocked the bastard off.”

CORY: Wow.
HOWARD: That’s the Kiwi mentality — they just do it! It’s like, “Build Hobbiton? Oh, you bet. You’re going to get the best Hobbiton you ever imagined.” And they actually built Hobbiton to perfect scale a year before they shot it, and then they left it so it could weather and the plants could all grow in. They had the capacity to take it slow like that. And it was sort of Everest-like, shooting the three films all at once. It was the longest shoot in history. Peter was able to direct for fifteen months, juggling a thousand horses, hundreds of extras, all the huge battle scenes … He and his team built their own studio and their own shop to do all the digital work. They did all the creatures and the design. They spent five years creating it. All New Zealanders.

CORY: How did Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh — Peter’s wife and collaborator — find you?
HOWARD: They did exhaustive research. I had no idea. They found pieces that I had written, that I had completely forgotten about. And they tried them in the film as temp pieces. Then they called me out of the blue and said, “Hello. We’re doing this movie, and we’re thinking maybe you’d be interested in talking about it.” When I saw the film, it was full of all these really obscure pieces by me. I’d say, "What’s that?" They’d go, “Oh, that’s track 14. You wrote it.” [laughs]
CORY: So what happens next? You’re going to start scoring the second film soon, right?
HOWARD: Well, that should go a little faster. The first film laid the groundwork. You could say that it’s the first act of a grand opera. I’ve written the first act, and I still have to write Act 2 and Act 3. I’m also finishing up the score for David Fincher’s The Panic Room.

CORY: One thing that has always amazed me is your range. You’re able to go from Videodrome to films like Big or Philadelphia.
HOWARD: Well, that’s just a repertory thing. That’s like on Saturday Night Live when we would do Beethoven and then we’d do a limbo-calypso. When I write, I just go into the world of the piece. When I watch the preliminary footage of a film, I hear the music. Then I go through the process of writing it down and creating it.

CORY: It’s that immediate?
HOWARD: Oh yeah. The cinematography, the way the actors move, the way they say their lines, the writing, the editing — all of that tells me immediately what the music needs to be. The movies I choose not to do are the ones that I watch but don’t have any feeling for. That does happen. But the good ones are the ones that I watch, and when the movie’s over I’ve already got the whole thing. I know exactly what it’s going to sound like. The movie just tells it to me.  

© index magazinegelatin1
Howard Shore by Juliana Sohn, 2001
Copyright © 2008 index Magazine and index Worldwide. All rights reserved.
All photos by index photographers: Leeta Harding, Richard Kern, David Ortega, Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson, and Juergen Teller